Data are set to music in James Webb's first full-color visuals

There's a new, interactive method to examine some of NASA's JWST's first full-color infrared photographs and data. Listeners can explore the intricate soundscape of the Carina Nebula's Cosmic Cliffs, compare the tones of two photos of the Southern Ring Nebula, and identify specific data points in a transmission spectrum of hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-96 b.

With help from the JWST mission and NASA's Universe of Learning, a team of scientists including Kim Arcand of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian musicians and a member of the blind and visually impaired community worked to modify JWST's data.

Music, according to Matt Russo, a musician and physics professor at the University of Toronto, "taps into our emotional centers." Our objective is to assist listeners develop their own mental representations by making Webb's imagery and data intelligible through sound.

These audio recordings are intended to be intriguing to all listeners, not only those who are blind or have impaired vision.

These compositions, according to Quyen Hart, a senior education and outreach scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, give a novel approach to explore the comprehensive information in Webb's first data. Sonifications, like textual descriptions, are unique translations of visual pictures by storing information such as color, brightness, star positions, or water absorption characteristics as sounds. Our teams are dedicated to making astronomy available to everyone.

This project is similar to the "curb-cut effect," which is an accessibility requirement that accommodates a wide variety of pedestrians.

When curbs are cut, they benefit people who use wheelchairs first, but also people who walk with a cane and parents pushing strollers, according to Arcand, a visualization scientist at the Chandra X-ray Center who led the initial data sonification project for NASA and now works on it on behalf of NASA's Universe of Learning. We hope that these sonifications reach a similarly large audience.

According to preliminary findings from a poll Arcand organized, persons who are blind or have limited vision, as well as people who are sighted, all reported learning something about celestial imagery through listening. Participants also expressed how much audio experiences spoke to them.

According to Arcand, respondents' emotions ranged from astonishment to nervousness. One noteworthy discovery came from sighted persons. They said the experience helped them realize how persons with impaired vision or blindness acquire information differently.

These tracks are not actual sounds recorded in space. Instead, Russo and his collaborator, musician Andrew Santaguida, mapped Webb's data to sound, carefully composing music to accurately represent details the team would like listeners to focus on. In a way, these sonifications are like modern dance or abstract painting they convert Webb's images and data to a new medium to engage and inspire listeners. 

Christine Malec, a member of the blind and low vision community who also supports this project said, she experiences the audio tracks with multiple senses. "When I first heard a sonification, it struck me in a visceral, emotional way that I imagine sighted people experience when they look up at the night sky.

These changes have several additional significant advantages.

According to Malec, "I want to understand every nuance of sound and every instrument choice because this is primarily how I experience the image or data."

Overall, the team expects that sonifications of Webb's data will motivate more listeners to follow the observatory's impending astronomical discoveries.

The JWST and NASA's Universe of Learning program collaborated to create these sonifications. As a NASA Universe of Learning partner, the Chandra X-ray Center (CXC) leads data sonification. Science specialists connected to the JWST mission share their knowledge about JWST observations, data, and targets.

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